There’s no question that Hunter Dozier has been one of the Royals’ more disappointing stories this season. On March 1st, the Royals agreed to a four-year extension with Dozier worth about $25 million guaranteed that bought out his remaining arbitration years. Even though Dozier was coming off a slight regression in 2020, as his wRC+ went from 123 in 2019 to 104 in 2020, the move by Dayton Moore seemed to signal that the Royals viewed Dozier as not only a key player in 2021, but long-term as well.
Unfortunately, this season has been a nightmare campaign thus far for the 29-year-old former 2013 first-round draft pick of the Royals. In 50 games and 177 plate appearances, Dozier is posting a triple slash of .153/.227/.339 with an OPS of .566 and wRC+ of 54. Of Royals hitters with 20 or more plate appearances this year, Dozier ranks second-to-last in wRC+ and fWAR (-0.5), and last in Off runs (-10.7), according to Fangraphs. While he has hit seven home runs this year, which is fourth-most on the team this year, his struggles with strikeouts (29.4 percent rate) and finding base hits (a team-low .177 BABIP) has made him a drain when he’s in the Royals lineup.
However, there still are 95 games remaining for the Royals, which plenty of time for not only Dozier, but the Royals as a whole, to turn things around at least somewhat. If the Royals want to right the ship and get back in the thick of the playoff race in the division with the Indians and White Sox (it’s looking like the Twins are playing themselves out barring a miracle), they will need a healthy and productive Dozier to do so.
Thankfully, despite Dozier’s poor traditional stat line, there are some promising signs in Dozier’s advanced metrics that signal a possible turnaround at the plate.
That is, of course, if he can relax and stop pressing at the plate…
Dozier’s pressing and its effect on his plate discipline
On June 15th, Lynn Worthy, the Royals beat writer for the KC Star penned an interesting piece where he got Whit Merrifield’s perspective on the Royals’ recent struggles at the plate. Whit gave Worthy this interesting quote about Royals hitters “pressing” at the plate:
“It’s just a matter of guys mentally getting over that barrier, and there’s a lot of aspects to it.” Merrifield said on Tuesday night. “There’s the aspect of us losing in this stretch that we’ve been losing. There’s an aspect of us not hitting with runners in scoring position. Then there’s that aspect of guys not really getting off to a great start this year.
“So guys are pressing about that. Guys are pressing about hitting with guys on base. And guys are pressing about us losing. It’s tough. It’s tough to overcome. You’ve just mentally got to push that aside and just attack every at-bat and attack every pitch and compete within yourself and the pitcher and see what happens.”
Merrifield pointed out that he’s also guilty of pressing at times this season.“Whit Merrifield says Kansas City Royals offense is pressing for a multitude of reasons” by Lynn Worthy; Kansas City Star
The pressing issue may be a team-wide thing, especially over the past couple of weeks. That being said, Dozier has been particularly guilty of pressing, much like Whit, and it shows in many of his metrics.
For example, let’s take a look at his percentiles chart, via Baseball Savant.
The three key percentiles that stick out from the chart above are his whiff rate, chase rate, and K rate, which all rank below the 25th percentile. Another one that is slightly concerning as well is his walk rate, which ranks in the 41st percentile. While at the surface level that isn’t the worst mark (the Royals have plenty of hitters that do not touch that percentile ranking), it is a sign of regression from Dozier in this category.
In 2019, Dozier ranked in the 60th percentile in walk rate, and last season, he ranked in the 89th percentile. The fact that his rate this year has dropped 19 spots from 2019 and 48 spots from a year ago is a sign that Dozier is feeling the pressure at the plate. As a result, he is not displaying the kind of plate discipline that drew a lot of walks the past two years.
While his percentiles show that Dozier is suffering from a more impatient approach at the plate, it is further interesting to note the difference in plate discipline metrics this season from his career norms, according to Fangraphs data.
After seeing his chase rate (O-Swing percentage) drop from 35.5 percent in 2018 to 30.1 percent in 2019 and 27.4 percent in 2020, Dozier has seen a 6.8 percent increase when it comes to swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. Furthermore, Dozier is swinging more in general, and that isn’t producing results for him at the plate. His swing rate is up 6.2 percent, but his contact rate is down at 69.5 percent, the first time it has been under 70 percent in his career. Additionally, his swinging strike rate is a career high at 14.6 percent, and his CSW percentage at 30.2 is also the highest rate since his rookie year as well.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Dozier is struggling so much in 2021. He’s over-anxious in his approach, and it is only sinking him lower statistically.
Here is a zone chart of his K rates from 2019-2020 combined.
Dozier certainly has his holes, as he struggled in the lower parts of the zone the past two years, as well as in the upper right part of the strike zone as well.
However, for context, let’s take a look at his 2021 zone K percentage chart:
Based on this chart above, the issue now is that Dozier is missing MORE in the strike zone than the past two years. This season, he is still whiffing at a high rate in the same areas from 2019-2020. However, notice the middle and middle down areas, and the difference in those zones on the previous chart. He only struck out 3.6 and 5.9 percent in those areas from 2019-2020. This year? He’s striking out in those zones 17.6 and 18.8 percent of the time, respectively, which is nearly triple the rate.
It just goes to show how out-of-whack Dozier’s approach is, and that probably stems from him feeling the pressure. He is trying to hit everything in order to get his numbers up, and as a result, he is hitting nothing, even when he gets pitches in the zone that he has traditionally mashed.
Here’s a look at Dozier approaching the breaking ball away in 2021. He tries to pull it, which results in a swing and miss against the Tigers’ Spencer Turnbull:
Now, let’s take a look at what he did in 2020 against this breaking ball in the same zone from Richard Rodriguez of the Pirates at Kauffman Stadium.
Notice how Dozier recognizes and sits on the breaking ball away. As a result, he is able to lace an easy single to right field, which keeps the line moving during an 11-0 blowout of Pittsburgh.
Even in 2019, he showed better recognition and sat on the breaking ball, especially away. Noah Syndergaard tries to get Dozier to whiff on a slider outside the strike zone. Even though it would have been a ball, Dozier still is able to make contact and go to the opposite field with it. In the process, he is able to leg out a double at Kauffman Stadium.
As one can see from the last two GIFS, Dozier looks more relaxed and is going with the pitch. This year, he is trying to swing and pull pitches more than typical, which hasn’t helped his current line thus far. Therefore, even though Dozier would like to get on a hot streak hitting-wise to help turn around his rough start, he needs to incorporate the more patient approach from 2019 and 2020 if he wants to find success again.
Let’s hope two days off can get him to stop pressing, or at least subside the pressing a little bit, which is effecting his hitting overall.
Dozier’s quality batted ball metrics
What’s interesting to note about Dozier’s profile is that even though his plate discipline has waned during this tough season, his ability to hit the ball hard has not. If one takes a look at his metrics via Baseball Savant, a lot of his batted ball metrics this year are just as good, if not better than what he did last year and even in 2019, which was his best year in the Major Leagues.
As Royals fans cane see, Dozier is posting career bests in barrel rate (10.8 percent), launch angle (18.8 degrees), and hard hit rate (46.7 percent). His average exit velocity and and max exit velocity marks are also the second-best of his career, only behind slightly in both categories from his 2019 mark. Therefore, Dozier is still hitting the ball hard, even if he has not found a lot of base hits for the Royals in 2021.
That is further confirmed in his expected averages. His xwOBA is 47 points higher than his actual wOBA, which is the highest positive difference it has been in his career. His xwOBACON (expected wOBA on contact) is only one point lower than his mark a year ago (.377 this year to .378 last year). Lastly, his 35.8 percent groundball rate is the lowest it has been since 2019, though on the other end, his 21.7 line drive rate is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season. Therefore, even though Dozier is putting the ball in the air more, it may not be productive flyball contact, and that is further demonstrated by a 13.3 percent pop up rate, which is his highest mark in that category since 2016.
That being said, Dozier is barreling the ball more than ever, and it is likely that his barrel rate will help his other numbers stabilize once that BABIP increases. As evidenced in this bomb against Indians reliever James Karinchak at Kauffman Stadium, very few Royals hitters can match Dozier’s natural power when he barrels a ball:
Dozier has demonstrated a lot of problems when it comes to over-swinging and whiffing at the dish in 2021. And yet, despite these struggles, his power and ability to hit the ball hard haven’t faded this season. In fact, they have only gotten better in many ways. Thus, once Dozier is able to recapture his plate discipline and pitch recognition from 2019 and 2020, it is possible that Dozier may not only return to 2019-2020 form, but could perhaps perform slightly better, if he is able to get lucky on a BABIP end (which hasn’t been the case this year).
Final thoughts on Dozier
I am not sure what Dozier will be able to do for the remainder of the 2021 season. He is so entrenched in a supreme slump that it will take a lot of baby steps for him to get out of it. There is no doubt in my mind that he is feeling the pressure from the extension, and he is probably overcompensating in order to justify his four-year deal in the eyes of Royals fans. Dozier seems to be a cerebral type of player, and that kind of sensitivity is what has dogged him in the minors, as he has followed good Minor League campaigns with rough ones the following season. It was a prime reason why Dozier jumped up and down so much during his time as a prospect in the Royals system.
The Royals need Dozier to succeed at the plate if they want to get back on the winning end of things, and I imagine that is tough for Royals management and fans considering his struggles. It may be easy for Royals fans to think there is a better option in the Minors lingering, but the reality is Dozier is their best bet going forward. Though Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom have been mashing in Triple-A, they were underwhelming in Kansas City this year, and they may be Four-A players ultimately at the end of the day. I don’t know if Dozier will be a franchise star like Whit or Salvy in Kansas City, especially considering his defensive limitations. However, I think he has at least more upside than O’Hearn and McBroom and that should merit Dozier a longer leash and opportunity.
At the end of the day, Dozier will need to relax to succeed. Of course, that is easier said than done, and some players recover from a rough patch quicker than others. Salvy and Whit recover quickly. Jorge Soler and Adalberto Mondesi can take some time. Dozier seems to be more in the latter camp, though it seems Dozier is taking longer than Soler, as the Cuban slugger is finally starting show signs of life in the past week.
However long it takes, the Royals need to stick with Dozier. His ability in the coming weeks to recognize pitches better and not over-swing in at-bats will be key when it comes to turning things around. Dozier’s power tool still remains evident this season. His struggles are mostly tied to his questionable plate discipline, and maybe the time off, and some bounce-back performances can get him back on the right track.
The Royals front office needs to let him know they trust him going forward, and maybe that will give him the boost of assurance he needs during this rough stretch for him.
Because no matter how hard he hits the ball, Dozier won’t see any improvement until he fixes his over-swinging and plate discipline issues at the plate this year. He can hit the ball hard, but he needs to be better at selecting balls that he can not just hit hard, but for base hits as well. That is not happening right now in 2021.
Thankfully for Royals fans, 2019 and 2020 showed what he can do when he is patient and confident.
Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images